Doa Aly

Doa Aly

The Girl Splendid in Walking

Two-channel synchronized audio-video installation, 16:9, 2009, 19 min 17 sec

The Girl Splendid in Walking is a choreographic adaptation of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fancy (1902). In Jensen’s novel, archeologist Norbert Hanold is fascinated with a bas-relief sculpture of a young woman who appears to be caught in the act of walking. He names her Gradiva, “she who walks,” after the Roman god Mars Gradivus; he borrows one of the god’s epithets to refer to her as “the girl splendid in walking.” Hanold becomes obsessed with the qualities of her movement, as depicted in the sculpture, namely the sharp arching of the sole and heel of her right foot. In a dream he sees her walking in the city of Pompeii moments before the volcano’s eruption, and calls out to her as she disappears under the ashes. Upon waking, he resolves to go there to look for traces of her unique walk among the ruins. In Pompeii, he encounters what he believes to be her ghost. They speak, and she consents to meet him every day at noon, “the spirit hour”.

The narrative follows Hanold’s escalating delirium, paranoia, and daydreaming, accelerated by the sun’s glare and his daily encounters with the supernatural. Finally, tired of the game, the ghost confesses that she is in fact his childhood friend, neighbor, and secret admirer, Zoe. Somehow, he had blocked Zoe from his memory, but her walk exactly matches his vision/fantasy of Gradiva’s. This revelation puts an end to his hallucinations.

The Girl Splendid in Walking is evolving around the characters’ infatuation with an unusual manner of walking. The actual bas-relief, a fourth century BCE Roman artifact, is on display at the Vatican museum. It depicts the middle part of a step, a walk-in-progress. Gradiva’s demeanor also denotes the span of her movement. Her determined step introduces the element of time; is Gradiva in a hurry, or merely herself, an ancient flaneur, strolling to her own purpose?

These qualities of the movement, coupled with the temporality of walking—time elapsed, distance crossed—become the basis of the choreographic interpretation of the walk and its function. Gradiva’s walk is appropriate as a rigid gait, almost a limp; the right foot crawls forward cautiously like tightrope walking, stretches as far as possible, then the left foot is released, lurching from behind in a single quick stroke. This construes a motion whose middle point is identical in grace and poise to the figure in the bas-relief, but whose first and second halves are awkward and strained. The interpretation visualizes a mythical walk at once divided and impossible.

The performances are deduced from the motifs in the story: the magical sunlight, Jensen’s contemplation of the sun’s power to induce delusion and longing; Archeological ruins as sites of enchantment; and bodies suspended in time. Hanold’s dream, as a catalyst of desire, compelling him to find and possess Gradiva. Time seeps and returns through the sun’s cycle. Space is eroded and reconstructed in ancient sites.

The Girl Splendid in Walking is a meditative experiential work following four characters wholly absorbed in their daily rituals. They include the archeologist, who doubles as a hypnotist; Zoe and her ghost Gradiva; and their lovers, a pair of craftsmen, twin brothers. The archeologist/hypnotist performs a magic ritual by a fountain to bring a drowned woman, Zoe, back to life. He teaches her a movement, using only hand gestures, a pantomime. Zoe haunts a deserted apartment, stopping by every window, following the sun’s movement. As the light slowly fades, Zoe’s ambit becomes tighter and tighter, fixing her in place. The  ghost, Gradiva, mimics her walk as she roams the dilapidated edges of an ancient palace. In Jensen’s  novel, Hanold wonders about the origins of the sculpture. Because the pose seemed anatomically impossible, he speculated that the man who created the sculpture had imagined the girl. The video visualizes the craftsmen as somnambulists, who dream of Gradiva. They create a marquetry portrait of She Who Walks, which they affix to the ceiling. Each day at the spirit hour, they  swirl beneath it in a ritual of adoration.

All of the characters are thus linked together in their isolation through the power of suggestion: hypnosis, dream, and desire. The Girl Splendid in Walking speaks to the contagious power of gestures, their ability to induce liminal states of consciousness, and the body’s fraught passage through art, archeology, and magic. The Girl Splendid in Walking was commissioned by the 11th Istanbul Biennial: “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” curated by WHW.

Photograph of a cast of the Gradiva in the private collection of Wilhem Jensen. The original Roman relief is in the Vatican City.